Outside linebacker Jaylon Smith (#9)
The best coverage linebacker the program has seen since second-round pick Courtney Watson (like Smith, a high school running back) in 2003, Smith has performed as well as any Irish player – on either side of scrimmage – over the last five outings. A true freshman, Smith plays to the wide side of the field, taking on slot receivers and runners in space as well as tight ends at the point of attack.
At 6’2", 230 pounds, Smith has faced his fair share of dual-threat quarterbacks this season, notably Michigan's Devin Gardner and Arizona State's Taylor Kelly He was a dominant force against Kelly and the Sun Devils in an October 5th win that marked his initial ascent as a rookie. Smith is the one Irish player capable of consistently tracking and corralling Taysom Hill in space Saturday afternoon.
Defensive end Stephon Tuitt (#7)
BYU likely drew the 6'6", 320-pounder at the wrong time. Saddled with bad weight early in the season – the lingering result of offseason hernia surgery – Tuitt was a shell of the player that dominated the first half of the 2012 season (he suffered a sports hernia during Game six last year vs. Stanford and played the rest of the way). But approximately midway through the 2013 campaign, Tuitt began to regain his form, his best outing coming after a mid-October bye in which the preseason All-America dominated USC, handing the Trojans their only loss under interim head coach Ed Orgeron.
Now Tuitt comes off a bye week plus an ejection, kicked out early in the second quarter vs. Pittsburgh on a targeting penalty against Panther quarterback Tom Savage. Pitted against a stationary quarterback this week, Tuitt would be nearly impossible to contain. Taysom Hill, of course, is anything but, but there's a rejuvenated athlete playing defensive end to the field side (wide side) of the Irish defense Saturday, and Tuitt will be a difficult matchup for the Cougars’ offensive front. Look for the future first-round pick to line up inside in the occasional four-man front as well, especially with Louis Nix out for the contest and the duration of the Irish season.
Nose guard Jarron Jones (third string) (#94)
Thursday night's news that senior nose guard Louis Nix is done for the season due to knee surgery was bad enough for Irish fans. But coupled with the reality that his backup, classmate Kona Schwenke – a valuable reserve and starting defensive end through the season's first nine games – will be well below 100 percent is sobering as well. Schwenke suffered a high ankle sprain on a cut block vs. Navy on November 1. It was bad enough that the training staff decided to put a cast on (rather than a boot) to immobilize it. He practiced this week and is determined to play, but an ankle casted on November 1 is unlikely to hold up on Saturday, November 23.
Redshirt freshman Jarron Jones will be called upon to hold the middle. Jones is a former four-star recruit that struggled most of the season as a backup defensive end. At 6'5", 299 pounds, he has the size to succeed, but Jones wore a protective boot on his ankle up until Monday's practice, the result of an ankle sprain incurred November 9 at Pittsburgh. If Jones can't hold the point, Brigham Young's rushing attack will roll.
Cornerback KeiVarae Russell (#6)
Notre Dame's best defensive back this season, Russell will move to the boundary side of scrimmage for Saturday's matchup versus the Cougars, a tactic likely employed to pit him more often against star receiver Cody Hoffman. A former high school running back, the true sophomore is blessed with long arms and leaping ability, though his 6'0" frame will be tested by the bigger, savvy Hoffman.
Said Russell of Hoffman this week, "If you can disrupt a big guy's route, he can't get into his stride. If someone that's like 6'4" gets comfortable, he most likely is going to catch the ball downfield. He knows where the ball's going to be and I don't. That's where it starts. I'm going to try to utilize my hands a lot this game. I'm pretty good with them but this week I've been working with it a lot, using my hands at the line of scrimmage to disrupt routes, making them run through me instead of opening the gate and letting them run free.
"Cody Hoffman's one of the best receivers in the country. They have great receivers, but just speaking on him, he's not the fastest, he's not the strongest, but if you watch film, no matter where the ball's at, he locates the ball. People will be on him but he still does it. I don't know how he does it."
Safety Elijah Shumate (#22)
Another true sophomore, Shumate missed three games (USC, Air Force, and Navy) due to a hamstring injury. He returned versus Pittsburgh on November 9 to play the majority of snaps, and his athleticism and open-field tackling skills will be a key component of Saturday's back-seven performance versus the Cougars’ perimeter running game.
The team's nickel defender as a true freshman last fall, Shumate often struggles versus the corner route (and quicker slot receivers) in space, but he's the best they have in terms of safety coverage skills at present. Junior Matthias Farley (#41) has inexplicably struggled as a tackler this year, senior Austin Collinsworth (#28) is better closer to the line of scrimmage, and Shumate, at 6'0", 212 pounds, is a more punishing hitter than centerfielder. Each will be tested throughout the contest Saturday afternoon.